How a Mannequin Took New York By Storm

Forget Jean Harlow and Bette Davis. The most sought-after celebrity of the late 1930s was a socialite named Cynthia. She was invited to the most elite parties, including the posh wedding of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII of England. She received freebies from Tiffany and Cartier, had box seats to the Metropolitan Opera, and was even featured in LIFE magazine. She wasn't a movie star, she wasn't an opera singer, she wasn't a political figure. Cynthia was a 100-pound plaster mannequin designed by sculptor Lester Gaba to be more realistic than the typical mannequins of the day. Cynthia had freckles and different-sized feet, and she wouldn’t melt under hot lights like wax models did. In order to boost his status as an artist and cement his place on the New York social scene, Gaba began escorting his creation around town as if they were on a date. As you might imagine, people took notice. Before long, trendsetters made sure that Cynthia showed up to galas, dinner parties, and all the events one would attend to grab the spotlight. Sadly, Cynthia met an untimely end when Gaba went off to fight in World War II and sent Cynthia off to live with his mother in Hannibal, Missouri. While there, Cynthia slipped from a chair and shattered into a million pieces. Newspapers reported Cynthia’s “death” as if a real person had died. Though Gaba later recreated her and even installed equipment that allowed her to “talk,” he couldn’t recapture the magic, and the country’s obsession with the plaster princess was over.